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NOC babus beat fire blame for reward

The two fire department officers who had signed the no-objection certificates that allowed AMRI Dhakuria to function without proper fire-safety arrangements have been rewarded within a year of the hospital tragedy: one with reappointment after retirement and another with a promotion.

Debapriya Biswas, who had signed all except one NOC granted to AMRI in four years, has become an officer on special duty with three days of retiring as the additional director-general of fire services.

His colleague Gopal Bhattacharjee, who had signed the last NOC before the December 9 fire tragedy that took 91 lives, has been promoted to additional director-general.

The two officers have not been indicted yet but, as a family member of one of the victims said, they haven’t been exonerated either.

“The fire department officers who sanctioned the NOCs are equally guilty, if not more than the owners of AMRI Dhakuria. That the government is rewarding instead of reprimanding them is an insult to the people who lost their lives and their families,” said Subhasish Chakraborty, secretary of the Human Health Rights Forum formed by the families of the victims, the majority of whom were patients.

While the duo have been given an extension and a promotion, the promoters of the Dhakuria facility had little going for them once the investigation into the fire tragedy began. Eight of the 14 members of the erstwhile board of directors spent months in jail and only two names from the old team have since been included in the new management.

Business and bureaucratic circles are abuzz with speculation about what prompted a government that had promised to “spare none” to reappoint someone responsible for the NOCs that allowed AMRI to function without meeting fire-safety requirements.

The investigation revealed that the basement meant for parking in Annexe I had been used as a storeroom-cum-office.

A part of the first tier had cubicles and shelves like those in offices. Heaps of electric cables, cartons, discarded stretchers with mattresses, wooden chairs, LPG cylinders and filled jerrycans were kept there.

Tier 2 had a lone exit and was being used as a diagnostic centre.

The probe team also found that most fire sprinklers and alarms in the basement were faulty. When the blaze broke out, nobody with any knowledge of firefighting protocol was around at the hospital.

Biswas had apparently been issuing fire NOCs to AMRI Dhakuria since 2008 against an undertaking each from the hospital authorities that they would comply with the guidelines within three months.

He retired as additional director-general on October 31 but was back at the Free School Street headquarters of the fire department on November 6. “It seems that someone high up in the department does not want Biswas away from the fire headquarters even for a week,” said an official who requested anonymity.

Many are also questioning the role an officer on special duty can play. The department hasn’t had anyone with that designation in its history.

“At this age, he cannot go on rescue operations. The other obvious reason for bringing back the former ADG could have been his technical expertise. If that is the case, how does one explain the three worst fire incidents in the history of the department during his tenure?” a colleague said.

Biswas was in charge of firefighting when the 100-hour Nandaram fire broke out in Burrabazar on January 11, 2008. On March 23, 2010, a blaze in the tinderbox Stephen Court on Park Street took 43 lives amid allegations of a delayed response by the fire brigade headquarters, less than a km away. AMRI happened the very next year. Biswas’s unexpected return as officer on special duty could be this year’s dubious landmark.